Israel and Palestine: Against the Nation State

The angry words of one young Jewish woman, a survivor of the Be’eri Kibbutz attack, reflect both the despair and hope of the current crisis, “it was citizens who came to help us. Citizens. The Government was nowhere.” Indeed, Bedouin from the Negev were among the first to organise volunteer teams to search for missing Israelis.

Ethnicity is at the foundation of the modern nation state. Liberal apologists may work to extend citizenship beyond the limits of ethnic identity, but behind the fair-minded face of the democratic republic lurks the spectre of racism. In the light of recent history, we should not need reminding of this, and the recent horrors in Israel-Palestine should not come as a surprise. We might even suspect, as Fredy Perlman contended, that genocide, far from being an aberration in the development of nations, is integral to that development.

And where is the state when mass violence is committed against its own people? Nowhere.

Perlman seems to treat the cycle of violence as endless. He offers no resolution to the dialectic of national liberation and imperialist oppression since genocide is inherent in the liberation movement itself. But the 19th-century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin had already offered a more precise and hopeful analysis:

Nationality, like individuality, is a natural fact. It denotes the inalienable right of individuals, groups, associations and regions to their own way of life. And this way of life is the product of a long historical development (a confluence of human beings with a common history, language, and a common cultural background) [1].

However, nationalism cannot be adopted as a principle, since:

every principle should have the power of universality, while nationality, a fact of exclusionist tendency, separates … The right of nationality can therefore never be considered … except as a natural consequence of the supreme principle of liberty; it ceases to be a right as soon as it takes a stand either against liberty or even outside liberty [2].

It was brought home to Bakunin as early as the Prague Congress of 1848 that some such limitation on national aspiration was necessary when his attempt to promote a pan-Slavic liberation movement foundered against the rivalries of competing national groups [3].

The Czech delegates, he noted, were more concerned with establishing hegemony over the Slavs in a reformed Austrian monarchy, the Poles wanted predominance over the Ukrainians in Galacia, while the Slavs under Hungary were preoccupied only with what affected them directly – Magyar occupation [4].

So while liberation movements are guided principally by nationalism, such conflicts are inevitable. There is an academic tradition which suggests that Zionism lacks an adequate conception of the Arab ‘other’, but even without such a lacuna, tensions around the migration of European Jews to the Levant would have occurred [5]. 

The history is complex and obscured by competing narratives, but some things are clear: Transfers of land from Arab peasants to richer European immigrants, facilitated by property relations imposed by successive imperial states, generated resentment; Arab anti-Jewish riots and massacres, particularly under British rule, led to militarisation among Jews and the emergence of fascist elements in both communities. Nevertheless, Zionism remained a largely socialist project prior to the mass displacement caused by the Shoah and the subsequent decision to create the state of Israel. From then on, Zionism’s progressive aspirations withered and it became another colonialist venture, while antisemitism in the Arab world increased exponentially. 

The oppressed become the oppressors, but the aspirations of both Jews and Palestinians to national self-determination remain legitimate. And freed from the territorial and economic claims of nation states, there is no reason why these aspirations should not co-exist peacefully. The current situation in Israel-Palestine is about as far away from the kind of society we would like to see as it is possible to imagine. The massacres at Supernova and Be’eri were horrific, the suffering in Gaza is beyond comprehension. But perhaps it is precisely at these moments of absolute inhumanity that the natural human impulse towards anarchism can find its strongest expression. I will leave the last word to the young woman quoted above:

Bibi, Hamas, I don’t care. What I know is that Be’eri suffers, Nahal Oz suffers, Kfar Aza, Sderot, and Gaza. Believe me, for every Qassam [rocket] 4.5 km away, the ground in Be’eri and Gaza, it shakes the same.

  1. Bakunin on Anarchism, 1980, second revised edition, translated and edited by Sam Dolgoff, Black Rose Books, page 401 (note this quote is taken from the section ‘On nationality, the state, and federalism’, available only in the revised second edition).
  2. Op. cit. page 106, but also in the first edition.
  3. Cipko, S. (1990)  ‘Mikhail Bakunin and the National Question’ in The Raven 9, Freedom Press, London.  Bakunin himself was not immune to this destructive chauvinism, his writings are littered with casual antisemitism, while anti-German feeling may have contributed to his attitude to Marx.
  4. Op. cit. p4
  5. Belinsky, Z. (2019) ‘Zionism and State Violence: Torwards a Jewish Critique’ Zionism and State Violence: Towards a Jewish Critique
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